What is cowboy poetry? Only one poetic form merits that distinction. It has three qualities:
a western or cowboy theme,
true line-end rhymes (such as ABAB or ABCB or ABAC), and
consistent meter throughout measured by syllable count (such as 8-6-8-6).
Poems which do not have all three qualities should be called something other than cowboy poetry…perhaps “western poetry” since there is no tradition for poetry by that name.
The cowboy poem, as a truly American literary form, originated in the West as cowboys rode the range in the mid-1800s capturing the rhythm of hooves on the trail. Without paper and pencil (many had no education), they wrote “in their mind” using both meter and rhyme to help them remember their verses. The poetic form is a true folk tradition which should be respected and preserved!
Who or what is a Cowboy Poet? Remembering back to my youthful conversations with The Badger, this might be the answer:
There are only two authentic varieties. You are a cowboy poet only if:
you are actually a cowboy and a poet (regardless of poetic style)…the emphasis is on your profession, or
you may or may not actually be a cowboy but write true cowboy poetry…the emphasis is on the genre.
One who does not qualify as a cowboy poet might better be called a western poet, a generic designation which has no historic or traditional form.
Badger Clark qualified as a cowboy poet in both categories. He was an Arizona cowboy for four years and, overall, his poems were true to the tradition of cowboy poetry as to theme, rhyme, and meter.
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For his rope twirling acts, Will Rogers called himself the Poet Lariat.
Cowboys of the mid-1800s, most uneducated, wrote as they rode, capturing the rhythm of the trail, pacing themselves with consistent meter, and using end rhymes to assist in remembering their poems.
When Badger Clark was appointed the first Poet Laureate of South Dakota, he sent the Governor a thank you signed "Your Poet Lariat."
The term "Poet Lariat" was first used by Mark Twain in his book Innocents Abroad.
Real cowboy poetry has consistent meter (as in the traditional ballad) and true rhymes (as love/dove). -- Clark Crouch